McMillan’s Codex # 13 By C.T. McMillan
Fallout 3 and New Vegas
The dystopia appears quite often in fiction. Its most basic form is a world that appears perfect, but has problems and issues hidden behind a gilded veneer. It is a setting that appears stable and peaceful, but its seamless order is maintained by a state of perpetual control at the cost of individuality, openness, and life itself. 1984 and many young adult works are examples of fictional dystopias, whereas North Korea and contemporary Russia are real.
Another form of dystopia is a world that started perfect until its utter destruction. The new world in its place is a direct contradiction, full of savagery and hostility. One common example is the post-apocalypse, a wasteland where anarchy reigns, the only order is personal justice, and survival is a constant struggle. The cataclysm that brought about the destruction varies, but one of the more interesting is that of a nuclear holocaust.
I never heard of Fallout before I bought the third canon game in the series 7 years ago. It was developed by Bethesda, the same studio behind Elder Scrolls, a fantasy RPG series I reviewed not too long ago. Before my purchase I heard Fallout 3 was basically “Elder Scrolls with guns” and when one combines a perfect role-playing system and firearms, how could I resist? Three hours into the game I realized I bought something far more unique.
The reason Fallout is so well regarded and the appeal for me is the world. With the post-apocalyptic setting is the underlining aesthetic of atom-punk, a derivative of cyber-punk where the speculative future of the 40s and 50s is literal. Fusion powered cars, radiated soft drinks, robots, and lasers are the norm, trapped in a time warp of 2077. After a costly resource war, the remaining superpowers squared off in a nuclear exchange that devastated the planet. Those who found refuge in the many Vaults, advanced fallout shelters, emerged to a place transformed by chaos and horror, the Wasteland
Barrowing from A Canticle for Leibowitz, religion plays a big part in the many factions and groups that make civilization in their own way. The Children of the Atom pray to an un-exploded nuke and the Brotherhood of Steel treats old technology like precious relics to preserve while defending the innocent. Starship Troopers and Foundation contribute much to the aesthetic with the atom-punk and the use of power armor. Mad Max references are plentiful as Raiders wear armor made from random scrap, whole towns are built from refuse, and wandering Slavers look for fresh captures to sell off.
Exploration is the best part of any open world RPG. What sets Fallout 3 apart from conventional wastelands is that it takes place in Washington DC, an area rarely depicted in a post-apocalyptic light. Monuments and famous buildings still stand, but as saturated ruins hastily repaired or converted into settlements. The National Mall is a no man’s land of trench works as a constant battle is waged between heroic soldiers and mutant abominations. In the shadows, lone treasure hunters comb the landscape for iconic documents and artifacts. Licensed tracks help the feel of the world with music by the likes of the Ink Spots, Roy Brown, and Bob Crosby that can be heard over the in-game radio.
Progression is similar to Elder Scrolls with the SPECIAL, skills, and perks systems. SPECIAL determines the player’s proficiency with abilities like how much they can carry and how well they can sneak. Skills directly affect gameplay and what you can do. A high Small Guns means you are adapt with pistols and rifles, Lockpick allows you to open doors and safes, and Speech could mean the difference between talking your way out of confrontation or going loud. Perks can help your stats and skills, while some make your attacks especially powerful like Bloody Mess or give you unique dialog options for female characters like Lady Killer.
In many ways Fallout 3 is no different from any game in the series or RPG for that matter. But the vast array of detail and the setting of a destroyed DC made it remarkable and cherished as one of the best games of all time.
While Bethesda developed Fallout 3, Obsidian Entertainment took charge of its follow-up two years later. The studios came to an agreement that one will set the games on the east coast, while the other took place in the west. It is fitting considering Obsidian is made up of former employees that worked on the series before Bethesda took over.
As a result, a lot of the lore in New Vegas is based on Fallout 1 and 2. The Brotherhood of Steel is more secluded and does not care about innocents. The Followers of the Apocalypse is a missionary outfit that helps the poor and sick. The New California Republic (NCR), as their name entails, is a fledgling superpower with bureaucratic expansionist ideals. There is plenty of new material like Caesar’s Legion, a faction inspired by ancient Rome and the titular city, whose majesty is that of legend. The lore is presented in a familiar fashion, as if the player already knows what is going on. Though it takes away from the sense of discovery as you progress, it makes sense because your character is a local. But the loss of wonder is one part of the game’s biggest problem.
New Vegas takes place in the surrounding area of Las Vegas, a setting that is already a wasteland. Immediately the otherworldly charm of the post-apocalypse is gone because the place that was supposed to be a barren ruin, started out a barren ruin, and remained as such after the apocalypse. Simply put, there is no reason for the setting to be a dystopia because no disaster took place, even in the backstory. Why anything is in disarray can be boiled down to convenience.
The city is kind of different with a vast slum in its periphery called Freeside, but it is still a generic copy of the same location with some aesthetic changes and different hotel names, one of which run by cannibals. Even that is not interesting considering there are maybe a few quests per hotel and they serve no purpose other than to house mini-games in the form of slot machines and a variety of tables that you will never play.
While the game fails thematically, it succeeds on conceptual grounds alone. The background of the main story centers on the NCR and Caesar’s Legion fighting for control of the Hoover Dam to exploit its resources. To gain the upper hand, both sides are trying to gain greater influence in Vegas, but Mr. House, the mysterious overseer of the city, has other plans. It is up to the player to decide the fate of the Wasteland and who controls Vegas.
You directly affect how the world develops on a political and cultural level. The NCR brings old world ideas, while the Legion was born out of the apocalypse with values akin to underdeveloped societies, and Mr. House is a balance of the two with totalitarian tendencies. You choose sides by gaining the trust of other groups and convincing them to lend their support to whomever you deem worthy. Either choice presents a variety of outcomes tied to the factions’ traits, but who says they have to control the Wasteland? Being player driven, you have the option to forgo the select groups and claim Vegas and the Dam for yourself. It is entirely up to you as you shape the outcome to suit the morals and ethics of your character.
The gameplay mechanics are also improved. Fallout 3 is as basic as you can get when it comes to a shooter. With the exception of series’ trademark VATS (Vault Assisted Targeting System), you just point and shoot at whatever you want to die. New Vegas gave the mechanics a contemporary spin with the use of iron sights and the option for different ammunition types. Missing from the formula, however, was the ability to sprint and one-button grenades.
While the magic that made the previous installment great was nonexistent and the environment uninspired to the point of banality, New Vegas had a lot to offer in other respects. Where it fails in aesthetics the game is exceptional in its role-playing and depth of choice as the factions you support and destroy reflect your personal morals and ethics. It was a new addition that built upon an already perfect concept.
Fallout 4 just came out and I am nonetheless enjoying it to the point of losing sleep. A review is inevitable and I would like to play enough of the game to understand it as well as the last two. I highly recommend buying it ahead of my critique, but I also recommend Fallout 3 and New Vegas as a primer for both the lore and the world.
C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer. He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.